And tell her to stay

cotton-in-braille

My mother sits on the side of the bed, it is 1980 or 1999 or never or sometime in the seventies or perhaps she’s not really there …

Her indent remains after the door closes, after the light is extinguished in the green hall way, where usually people go to sleep and she goes away, away, away …

Even then I could not see well, I squint into the half light, I look at the painted gypsy caravan wardrobe my parents picked up in a flea market before I was born, the cheap thin wood which now, years later, would be considered ‘antique’ – oh the absurdity of those things.

I think of them, crouching on elastic knees, abundant youth, painting, red and blue and yellow. I think of the song I learned in nursery about a rainbow, I think about gays appropriating rainbows later on and how ‘gay’ is not how most of us felt. How appropriation is always ironic.

When I began to stop wetting the bed, my father bought a calendar and stuck it on my wall, he would let me stick stars on the days I did not wet the bed, when I got enough stars he said, something great would happen. It had to be better than the machine I’d had the year before that ‘buzzed’ when I wet the bed and woke me up. I didn’t see how sesame seeds and electric buzzers would stop any child peeing in their nightmares.

A week later I opened my curtains, there was a stuffed toy rabbit on the windowsill, it was slightly damp from being there all night, and it smelt like fur and home. I still have it. It still has me. I never named it. How do you give a name to the earning of pain?

We lived in a basement, it was moldy in the Winter and cool in the Summer. I couldn’t see the sky, I grew to like the idea of living underground, of burrowing deep into the earth beneath city concrete, where the bodies murmured against river mud. I believed in Ghosts. Ghosts most certainly believed in me, they were my companions.

They shimmered past in half-light, caught in doorways and shining windows and dour corners. They contorted into devils by the astigmatism of my eye, becoming faces with fangs, fingers reaching upward. I wondered even then, why I feared the unseen more than the seen. Why what was not real felt more real than real? How ghosts could become my torment, when the world outside felt equally remorseless? Why not put them away and tackle that which existed? Perhaps that is exactly why. For a child who did not know how to make things right.

My wardrobe was little for a child, I was little for a child, my bones were plastic and breakable, they snapped when I folded myself tightly into corners, and the four cheap velour rabbits bought one Easter sat alert and watchful on the windowsill with a half moon shining in and lighting the face of the wardrobe into a grimacing creature.

The rabbits and I heard things. We saw things. Through bad eyes and deaf ears. The sound of my mother leaving, her presence skirting the room like a flamingo dancer, her lithe form, her long graceful arms with impossibly thin wrists, the smell of her on my skin because I was born of her, and then born not at all.

A clock did not exist on the wall, it did not tick down time, it did not remind us of what we had lost, it was not there, it left only the outline of its being like a circle set by sunlight on fading paint. A sundial without hands, without notion of time. Existing as planets exist, not realizing they circle the other.

My clothes grew tight as I elongated and sloughed the years, I kept an empty bottle of my mother’s eye make up remover by my bed, it smelt of her, as her hairbrush did, I wondered how she could live without her hairbrush. I did not wonder how she could live without me.

The tenants of the tall building were unhappy and they smiled a lot to cover it up. They said things like; We will be glad to look after your little girl. When my father cycled away, relieved, lighter, seeking a woman, seeking freedom, I stood on the doorstep and watched and the ache in my chest felt like a piece of lead piercing unnamed parts and I thought of my mother, how when she was my age she watched her parents sail back to Africa whilst she stayed still and I realized … how she and I were interchangeable and only the years were different.

Once, my mother said her mother put perfume on a handkerchief and left it for her and she kept it under her pillow. I kept my mother’s hairbrush under mine, it smelt of the oil of her curly hair, and the damp of my tears and the dust of time, sweeping her skirts along the empty floor.

I am alone now. As I was then. It feels the same. It feels worse because there is no illusion. Nothing like the future to hide behind and solace yourself with. No ‘things will be better when you grow up’ after you have grown up and realized they are not.

Again we are back in my bedroom. She is standing up. She is sitting down. The moment of her departure is fuzzy like my eye sight and I tell her, in years to come I will lose my eye sight and you will gain yours and my father will still be cycling away not knowing they piled on top of me and beat me to pieces, or that three little boys could throw marbles so viciously until a little girls heart burst and she ran away.

She turns to me and says something but it was twenty years ago. It was never. It was yesterday and I cannot see what she says or how she says it, to know if it was meant or just words spilled onto temporary carpet. I cannot know because she did not know, and our act was just a part of a grander outcome, both of us have forgotten and remembered many times since.

I love her in a way that slices through the fat and gets to the bone. I love her in a way I cannot articulate meaningfully but she knows and that’s the worst part, she knows. Maybe ever since I have found my father’s bicycle and learned to follow his trail, looking for her, looking for myself, seeking the way out of the high rise and the pinching boys and the ugliness that turns away when they see what is happening because maybe they are glad.

It is a day later, a year later, a decade past. We sit on roof tops in the weak sun and eat boiled sweets. Ants pick at our toes, dandelion’s die and float in their seed form to be wished upon and we leave them alone, already knowing, wishes are foibles.

You say it won’t hurt but it does and I knew it before it happened but I let it happen because of the ache inside that needed anything, even if it was pain.

The roof top is strewn with the debris of childhood, and my mother’s brush no longer smells of her, it goes through my hair like it was only my straight, boring hair it had to brush its entire life, as if she never existed and we did not sit on the bed together, the curtains closed nearly completely, only a hint of darkness spilling through.

If I had remembered I would have told her then, do not leave me when the time comes in twenty years, do not say goodbye a second, a forth, a nineteenth time. No matter what you think I have done, how disappointed you are in me, what disgust you hold in your heart. Instead remember this, the moment we sat quietly and I put my hand in yours and said it was okay and you cried and I cried from then until forever, without using my eyes or my ears or my mouth.

My father is cycling away from me, he is squinting ahead as if he sees something worth seeing, and I am turning, watching my mother close the door, asking that it be left open just a crack, to let the light in, hearing her steps in the corridor, not quite believing she will never come back. Because children always believe in magic. And Ghosts. And Monsters. And boys with marbles in their cheeks and demons in their eyes.

When I woke next to you and you asked me if I had a bad dream, I watched you as you sank back down into sleep and your hair fell across the pillow, the tangle and darkness of it against white linen. You could have been her, I could have been him, we could have never had a child, I ask you not to, please, do not, I don’t need to be born.

That’s why I was late, and why you struggled for 40 something hours in labor, they should have cut you, small as you were, small like me, but they didn’t, maybe it was cruelty, we have seen a lot of that in our life haven’t we and it wouldn’t surprise either one of us, or maybe it was the belief that women were strong enough no matter what, and we know that to be true also, even as we think it’s a damn shame sometimes.

You were strong enough and I was strong enough – to survive or endure but never really thrive – maybe you did – perhaps you were the only one who could – I had my eyes set on a future that never came, and a bicycle turning the corner, and my grandmother waving me from the street as I climbed the stairs to my class, and just as she turned to go, I ran back and I came outside and called her name and she said; Why aren’t you going to your classroom? And I wanted to say; Why would I go into a classroom? I’m not going to learn anything there? I have learned more here sitting on this bed, watching my mother leave, hearing her say things she did not say, wishing I were as powerful as the God of the wardrobe and not being able to eat my marzipan frog she brought me last. Because she gave it to me and I could not consume it and for it to be gone.

And you would have understood because you had your emotions close to your skin as I have, which makes you easily despised and sometimes admired. Because you were a coward as I have been, letting her be crushed by your absence and thinking it nothing at all, when you set sail again and again leaving her with a handkerchiefand a loneliness the size of Africa. I could not fill that loneliness although good God I tried many, many times, but when you break someone, you can put them back together, it does not mean they can hold anything you then pour into them.

She was the most beautiful woman I ever saw, and that from a child who didn’t yet know how to lie. I compare my lovers to her now. Wonder if they could beat her at chess and laugh because I know they could not. Think on how she managed to stay strong even in the harshest currents, when I cannot always stand without leaning. I look nothing like her, there is only sometimes in the cast of light, a glint of her in my eyes, looking back and when I see it, I ask her, why didn’t you spit me out before I was whole, so that you never had to be disappointed and I never had to lose you, then and now and never.

My grandmother taught me to swim in a basement, I dreamed the river would break its banks and my little home would be drowned. I dreamed my father was on the bottom bunk and I on the top and every time the water receded he was lifeless and I could do nothing, except scream impotently underwater for him to live. My grandmother died before I was old enough to let her know the truth, that I was not her grandchild but a water sprite dredged up from the river mud and set to swimming in dreams not of my own. That I had no parents but the marzipan figurines of night terrors and mares and I peed in my bed until I was too old to tell and old enough to lie.

Learning to swim was the only thing I learned fast and well, everything else came slow and difficult, just like trying to love someone who doesn’t love you, or expressing things too painful for words. I could sit with my parents and paint my wardrobe but I could never, ever, close the chink of light coming in from the slightly opened curtains, spilling on the floor where she walked across, soundlessly, growing dim and incomplete like the china dolls set back on a distant shelf somewhere.

Now I wear heavy glasses and even that is not enough, I cannot drive at night, I see things that are not there, and do not see what is. I think that is quite ironic really all things considered. My stomach hurts to think of how easily the brush goes through my hair, and how girls with curly hair never needed hairbrushes, so how hers became mine, seems like it always was, and the bottles she left behind were empty when she was here, when she was gone, when she never was.

If one day I am asked, I will say, I tried my best, I learned to swim well and I could pick up one of those weighted bricks from the bottom of the azure swimming pool but nobody came to see me swim so I did not compete well and soon I gave it up altogether. I will say I remember my grandmother running after a man who had broken in to watch us swim and bellowing at the top of her voice she scared him off, all 5’1 of her. I think my mother would laugh at that story, she has a wonderful laugh, it lights up her face and makes everyone else in the room join in.

We will not invite the shadows, we will not ask the ghouls or the disappointments to attend. We will stay the two of us, and wait it out. The past, the present and the future. We will talk on other things and not linger on those that prick and make us bleed. We will circumvent the pain like a sleeping lion and I will make her smile at my stories, the way I did once, once some time, some where. I have forgotten exactly when. The two of us, so alike and so different, sisters, strangers, with love the size of a river, with regret as deep as a drowning. Things never said on the tip of my tongue, burning with love, as we are quiet on the edge of the bed, with my mother about to leave and yet, still there, and me, always leaning, leaning towards her. Wanting to reach out. And tell her to stay.

Mercy for the wild

brown tabby cat sitting on brown wooden stool
Photo by Anderson Martins on Pexels.com

Quarantined kids escape briefly, screeching loud into empty streets

their thin bodies desperate for release and water sprayed

high into quiet air

I grew my nails because I am not touched, I do not arouse desire

there is no purpose in their being short or useful

for love I had once, in the magnolia dimness of loveliness.

Racketed sound is a mockery, a reminder of how things used to be

when you believed in love and it slipped through your hands

like porcupine quills that have no sharp

distracting yourself with empty boxes and things unpacked

for you belong not here nor there, nor any place

always the need to pack up and relocate, find what

has never sought finding in great wild.

You may judge if you wish

I did a good thing, though you will say it was wrong

I saw nature today at its most timorous and yet bold

I let it go, I let it go.

Many months I planned the capture of her off spring

as she ate from my plates, watching side-ways with distrusting gaze

I am after all, someone prone to superstition and wonder

she arrived a month after the death of my cat

it seemed in her resemblance, it was his return

then she is pregnant and I believe I can have

a house full of life again.

But this heart cannot take one more attempt at loving

this body though young, remembers the torment of losing

those mercies in the night and belief things last eternal

when nothing but the certainty of natures hammer sounds

and nature is not a kindly thing

though perhaps in her supposed cruelty, she is pure

whilst we save cats and neuter so that they may

grow fat and listless without purpose, swatting flies for entertainment

our city nearly drained of ferals and life, and hope, it occurred to me

I didn’t want her caught and diminished by

our belief we know what is right for

creatures of the wild.

I would say, especially as a virus seeks to diminish our population

a mass of humanity grown out of control

this is natures doing, this is the deliberate

consequence of our unprecedented surge to exist

maybe she will forgive

if she does not, is that even wrong?

We place our beliefs as if they are more

than tin soldiers and waxen effigies

as proofs of some superior knowledge

all against the tilled marrow of this earth

long outlasting us, fecund dirt and soil

from which life springs eternal and unfettered

laughing at our arrogance with our

purple capes of chastity and piety

golden crosses forged from raped stone

rules to contradict and suppress the powerless.

She was caught in this cold cage and I saw

her yellow eyes find mine

they say if you stare too long into the eyes of

a wild creature they will perceive a threat

better to bow your head in prayer and submit

they say too much that is tired and old

she looked at me and with the beseechmentof her kind and mine

she asked to be wild

not neutered for ‘her own good’

because she will develop cancer and her kittens

will die time and again to the coral snake and all

other natural things.

She wanted her chance at freedom

she would take them away now, her kittens whom I watched from

my isolation and my hurt, brightening my day

a salve of selfish joy, what is it that saves

the sanctity of the unsaved?

Her shoulders were down, almost crushed, I knew

to release was the greater good

as the wild rose is always more beautiful

on the wild rose tree and not in a vase

in a sterile room to bloom and wilt and lose

richer, than the bland salt-less life I lead

tame without children, without those who

call me when they promise to love and obey.

Our human folly I saw as glaringly

as those kittens in a line, following their mother

through high grass away

my heart stung, same as when my own cat

breathed his last and we said it was a mercy

to euthanize him in his pain

but what of his freedom?

Did he go from that place of needles and

kitty grooming and dental hygiene for pets

to something as noble as her green field?

I saw roses die when I was very young

even as I dried them and tried to keep their wholeness

they crumbled because life is bidden by our false extension

but the visceral and the sad and the sorrowful and the tragic

and quite often

something more achingly beautiful than we

with all our art and books and music

could ever be.

I didn’t want to let her go, I wanted to control

insert myself into the story

trap her kittens to tame them

save them from a less noble fate

and yet who am I?

Am I a worthy example?

with my loss of love, my lack of family?

who was I to prescribe my way? To these

who had every right to live their way?

You see, I have long known I am not

their superior, they are not inferior to me

I am neither their master nor willing to decide

their fate when they have a greater sense of life

real life, than I, in my artifice, ever will

I do not eat flesh for this reason, it is to me

a cannibalism in the way we farm and produce

milk and animal products neatly spit out

without thought to their suffering, or the

terrible way they know what will happen.

We are unnatural in our artificial world

we are too aware of things, our intelligence

can be as much a curse.

Many days I wake and have such a pain inside

me, I know only comes from the unbearable

awareness and I wish I were as simple and as

loving as those felines in my garden or that

I had not listened to sensibility as a young girl

and like this cat, who so resembles mine, who is dead

believed like the earth, after rain, we should

grow wild and free

unbidden.

Yet we have in a way, and with our vast numbers

disease and famine, virus and pest try to

even the score

it is as natural as it comes to get a virus and die

but we are not able to accept that, we believe we

should conquer this God given earth, spreading ourselves out

until we are no different to bacteria or roaches.

I pity us, I pity what we know and do not know

in some ways we are the same as this mother

trying to save her kittens because of an impulse

in her case the purity of instinct

in ours we have choices and often they lead to greed

and an insatiable desire for more.

I choose

seeing her resigned, defeated self

I release the cage, it springs back, she rushes out

it feels so right to see her dart across the field, unencumbered

I know she will take them far away now

I know I will lose them

I also know I never possessed them

and that it is right this way

for pets are not ours to ‘own’ or be master of, they are the chained

learned mules and horses who have been broken

maybe they do not know it and are happy

but what of those who are still wild?

Who am I to take, to decide? To think I know best?

I have read all the books about feral cat population

show cruel it is for nature to flourish unchecked

how disease runs rampant and sickness abounds

and I think of us and our wish to have choices

even as the same thing happens and we perish

to the hands of disease and the will of something more powerful

than our tinker toys and our belief we know all.

As much as she punishes me for my error

walking away, leaving nothing but footprints

in dry sand on my emptied deck

I feel I have listened to

something deeper than talk radio or

my biology books, I have instead

heard the call of the wild and it told me

do not always think you can disturb

this felted land with your superior knowledge

you should only know, you do not know

much.

How am I an example with my perpetuate grief

my unfulfillment, unhappy childhood, empty rooms.

All the awareness we have can be a curse

better to be wild, not to expect love or loyalty

those are human constraints, doomed often to failure

better to be without rule, not to live for glory or purpose beyond

the simplicity of instinctmy instinct told me to open the cage

it has always sought to protect rather than capture

even if she dies out there, she dies intact

not a creature molded by us, into something hybrid and wrong.

I have nothing in my arms now, as I had

nothing in my arms then

and I don’t cut my nails because there is no-one to love

or hold me when I need to be held

because humans promise and break those promises like

egg shells cast on skillets

because you told me you loved me always and

soon you couldn’t even lift a finger or try

to write a line in love, for your bitterness soured your

entire soul and I had a heart filled

but with no way to empty it.

I no longer want to be let down and told

I don’t write because there’s nothing to say

and I don’t want a relationship based on writing

because all those who were separated in the past

wrote letters to each other many, many times

no matter their distance.

It is rather, our modern impatience that says

I want it all now, I want it all or none

then you shall have none, as I shall have none

and all those wasted years were a grave mistake

just as many things I have done are.

I am not making another mistake

I will not keep her behind bars

where I have been waiting for you to do right by me

where I have been expecting to be treated right

when most people are anything but … merciful

it is our human world and I wish I were

instead that mother or a deer unbound

it is sad that we die of the virus

it is more sad, that we live as we do

things happen as lessons to teach us

will we listen? Or will we repeat

and repeat and repeat?

I release her back

into the mercy of the wild

where she looks once

over her shoulder and then

quick as lightning

she is gone.

Written in memory of the cat who loved me loyally more than any person ever has and whom I loved very much and brought with me to this country so long ago.

Halo 2001-2019. RIP.